Watching Netflix’s drama Painkiller is odd — but not in the strange way it intended. Those who have seen the story of how the Sackler family’s greed decimated thousands of lives through the introduction of OxyContin, previously told in Hulu’s Dopesick (a far more measured and comprehensive miniseries that came out a couple of years ago), will have a strong sense of déjà vu.
Many of the same real-life individuals and plot twists appear, as does a focus on how ruthless the Sacklers and Purdue Pharma were in releasing this medicine. What distinguishes the two is execution, as the writing, directing, and overall structure of this series pale in comparison to the one already in the world.
The issue isn’t simply that the obligatory Painkiller arrives late; even if it had arrived before Dopesick, it would have been the inferior work. However, the timing doesn’t help Painkiller in its extended shadow cast by an immeasurably superior series. It doesn’t offer anything new where it should and instead focuses on all the wrong things, thus undermining the little sense of promise it had going for it.
Based in part on Patrick Radden Keefe’s excellent New Yorker article — worth reading more than watching this fictionalised series — each of the six episodes begins with more compassion in a handful of minutes than the rest of the show does writ large, as we hear from a real person who lost someone to OxyContin. This gets startling when we jump from a shattering confessional to Richard Sackler’s bizarro reality in the first episode.
We see him in his latter years as he awakens in his beautiful estate as the sound of a smoke alarm pierces through the quiet, played by a miscast Matthew Broderick who never settles into the part. Cue Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence,” the first of many bizarre music selections that serve as the background to his walking around in quest of the source of the beeping that may or may not be genuine.
He is a guy tormented by physical spirits, as we learn during the series. This is reflected in moments that feel out of place as if they are a clumsy attempt to be edgy in the manner of a film like The Big Short. The problem is that it does so without any of the necessary cunning to carry off such a ploy. The only thing Painkiller does is serve as an example of how not to tell this narrative.
Though it is difficult to miss the glaring flaws in this empty investigation of a very real problem – there might be some benefit in seeing various viewpoints on the same topic, and you wouldn’t want one to imitate the other — it is difficult to overlook the glaring flaws in this shallow exploration of a very real problem. Much of this hollowness derives from the casting, with Broderick never approaching Michael Stuhlbarg’s portrayal of Richard Sackler’s nonchalant menace, but also from the series’ rigid structure.
Even when there is a performer that is better up to the task, such as Uzo Aduba as Edie Flowers (a fictitious combination of various people attempting to battle the Sacklers), there is a sense that they are fighting the screenplay they’ve been handed. Not only is it a bad narrative, lacking the complexity we saw in Dopesick as we witnessed the nuances of the individual characters’ lives in considerably greater depth, but it is also an inadequate depiction of the realities of this disease.
Hearing Aduba narrate scene after scene of a legal strategy conference that the programme continues painfully cutting back to is a consistently cumbersome approach of conveying the required information for the tale. It’s all way too repetitive as if we’re being read a Wikipedia page backwards, and the series’ sardonic tone comes off as infantile. Painkiller appears to lack faith in its audience’s ability to engage with the mundane concerns of struggling against all-consuming greed.
Whereas Dopesick seemed more in line with a film like the highly detailed Dark Waters in not skimping on the emotional experience of going up against cruel companies, this series is satisfied to deliver an overview that never offers any deeper understanding. Instead, there are repeating views of Broderick strolling with a dog in which we can see the dog’s balls. These sequences may be seen as showing how Sackler is an insecure manchild, but they’re not quite as insightful as the programme seems to believe.
The more horrifying scenario, as Dopesick subtly but conclusively exposed, is that individuals in authority are mercilessly calculating and would do anything they can to cling to the riches that provide them unlimited control. Even now, as seen in the enlightening documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed from last year, justice is in short supply. The brief moments we get with people like the disturbed Glen Kryger (played by an underutilised Taylor Kitsch), whose life and family are irrevocably changed by the drug, are offset by the series’ more cartoonish components. The horrifying and powerful facts revealed throughout Dopesick, though nonetheless flawed in their own way, consistently outperform everything tried here.
Painkiller, above all, seems overly light in a basic way. Characters are almost always rendered shallow, and there is a continual lack of tolerance, which sets the performers up for failure. By the end, everything has been nicely wrapped up while the truth of the story is significantly more convoluted. Whereas several of the last moments of Dopesick may be truly heartbreaking in terms of how they properly portrayed this, Painkiller peters out after a lacklustre base.
The last series had a lot more vitality to it, which is nearly totally missing here. Dopesick seems to care about taking its time to present the complete picture of the devastation wreaked on so many individuals, but this generally does not. While Painkiller was always going to be the worse of the two series, it’s now evident that it doesn’t even come close to the better-told version that’s currently available.
Dopesick not only beat Painkiller to the punch, but it did it with considerably greater emotional and thematic power in the areas that genuinely mattered. The only consolation we get from seeing Sackler effectively talking to himself here is that we no longer have to listen to his schtick.